Norwich City are turning fans into true believers but bigger tests await
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
While some fans might not deem a League Cup run high on the priority list, Tuesday's superb result at Goodison Park was significant.
Alex Neil has had his critics, but being able to carry out his game plan effectively against a team that had made such an impressive start in the Premier League is a reminder of his abilities.
Neil made 10 changes to the side that had beaten Nottingham Forest days earlier. Robbie Brady, the only player to start both games, was one of seven internationals in the City side who brought Ronald Koeman's unbeaten start as Everton manager to an abrupt end. The boos at the full-time whistle were proof of how seriously the Merseyside club were taking the competition. As much as we bemoaned missing out on that marquee striker signing, Norwich's squad remains the envy of most in the Championship.
After a 3-0 defeat at Birmingham and a lacklustre end to the transfer window, questions were being asked of the manager and his players. The reaction, winning five games out of five and sitting top of the league less than a month later has been better than most of us would have dared to imagine.
Confidence is crucial in any league, just as Norwich found out to their detriment last season. As difficult as it was to break that Premier League winless streak, there were elements of Saturday's performance that exuded the kind of arrogance that emerges after five straight victories.
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While goals are being spread around the team, it was Cameron Jerome who looked lacking in confidence at the weekend. Why he didn't demand the opportunity to take the penalty that Brady had saved was a mystery, and for the second Saturday running Norwich got away with missing from the spot. That's an area that needs addressing with a potential League Cup shoot-out in a few weeks, too.
The scoreline against Burton didn't truly reflect City's dominance in the game, which was only dampened by a few lapses in concentration at the back. A better team would have surely cashed in on one or two more of those opportunities, but as it was Neil's players did enough to secure three more points that in truth never seemed in doubt.
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Newcastle on Wednesday night are a different prospect altogether. St James' Park was the scene of a defining 90 minutes in Norwich's relegation season.
Neil's poorly judged tactics and resulting 6-2 hammering on that day had an effect on his approach to games from that point on. Humbled by a team who hadn't won a game prior to that October fixture, the Scot looked to have lost his swagger, adopting a more cautious approach as he found results increasingly harder to come by.
Fast-forward almost a year and Neil's confidence in taking games to the opposition seems to be returning, with his preference for attacking full-backs typified by goals from Martin Olsson and Ivo Pinto on Saturday. But three of the four consecutive league wins have come against teams in the bottom six in what has been a kind run of fixtures. A trip to title favourites Newcastle followed by Saturday's live television fixture at Wolves will be much stronger tests.
So nine games in, Norwich have earned the chance to go seven points clear of Rafa Benitez's pre-season favourites despite having scarcely hit top form. City may currently sit top of the pile, but it's the outcome of these two demanding away fixtures that will give us a much better idea of their promotion credentials.